Federal court grants reprieve in Gunnison sage grouse listing

Published: Wednesday, May 7 2014 2:10 p.m. MDT

Greater Sage grouse walk in the snow. The Bureau of Land Management intends to prevent that listing, but conservation groups have criticized the federal agency's plan.

Howie Garber, Deseret News archives

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SALT LAKE CITY — Opponents of a potential listing of the Gunnison sage grouse in western Colorado and southeastern Utah are celebrating a brief reprieve granted by a federal court to delay a decision for six months.

The extension, announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will provide more time for the agency to assess the level of action necessary for the conservation of the species, which mostly lives on private land. The additional time will also allow the public to weigh in on a special rule regarding the "take" provisions that would accompany an endangered species listing. The extension was granted by a federal court with permission from the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking protections for the bird.

Last week, Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., were joined by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., in a request to the agency to delay its final decision due Monday on the listing or the designation of any critical habitat for the chicken-sized bird.

"The proposal to list the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act has engendered great interest and concern in southwest Colorado's communities and across the entire state," they wrote. "We feel that additional time is needed to consider recent and ongoing local habitat conservation efforts."

It's estimated that there are just 4,600 Gunnison sage grouse existing in seven distinct population units in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The bird occupies only 7 percent of its historic range because of a range of threats that include habitat fragmentation brought on by wildfires, fencing, power lines and development.

Only about 120 of the birds exist in southeastern Utah in San Juan County, where an active, on-the-ground conservation effort has been underway since the mid-1990s, before the bird was even recognized as a distinct species in 2000.

The bird is known as an “indicator” species for shrub-steppe habitat, meaning if it is not doing well, the entire ecosystem that supports it is also in peril.

Utah biologists conducted monitoring from 1972 to 1999 that shows the population has declined in San Juan County by as much as 75 percent.

An economic analysis prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and released last fall shows it could cost as much as $12 million over the next 20 years if the bird receives federal protections.

A proposed listing by the service impacts 348,353 acres in the Dove Creek Monticello Unit, which includes a section of San Juan County, and 245,179 acres in the Pinion Mesa Unit which creeps into a small section of Grand County.

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